Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Missing the Daily Commute by Train

I started programming professionally just over 20 years ago and in all that time I have mostly commuted to my place of work either by car or train. My first role, straight out of university, was at the height of the recession in 1992 and so I pretty much moved to wherever it was going to be. After that I started contracting and did a couple of stints where I commuted by car for an hour each-way which pretty much convinced me that commuting by car any distance was less than desirable. Whilst I had been car-sharing and enjoyed some very interesting chats with my fellow programmer passenger it was still tiring and no fun when stuck in traffic (which eventually became a regular occurrence).

During that time my wife had tried commuting into London by train for her first job and found it was quite palatable. Hence it felt as though I either took a contract on my doorstep (which was unlikely), we moved house, or I headed into London by train [1]. And so I spent the better part of the next 20 years commuting into London and its suburbs.

All Quiet on the Writing Front

You may have noticed that my writing activities have taken a serious nosedive over the last 6 months and that’s almost entirely due to me taking a contract that was once again almost on my doorstep. A chance to commute by car for only 20 minutes a day, and in the opposite direction to all the traffic (which was heading into Cambridge) felt like too good an opportunity to pass up. It wasn’t a hands-on development role like I’ve been doing for the past 2 decades but, frankly, given the short commute I was happy to try my hand at some pure consulting for a change. And I’m glad I did as I learned heaps of stuff in the process [2].

Having such a short commute by car has been an absolute delight. I’ve left the house in the morning, and the office in the evening, when I felt like it rather than to meet a timetable. And the short drive time has meant me spending more time at both ends of the day with the wife and kids [3]. I never quite made it home to enjoy dinner every day with them as getting out of the business park’s car park was a nightmare at 5 pm; but it was close.

That said it seems a little churlish to complain about the lack of time I’ve had to write either for this blog or the ACCU journals. Clearly I have had the time, in the evening for example, but I’ve (implicitly) chosen to spend it differently. As I look back over my career I now begin to understand some of the comments that my colleagues have made in the past around how “lucky” I was to have a regular train-based commute.

A Time to Learn

My journey into London consists initially of 45 minutes solid travel followed by “an amount” of time on the underground rail network which has been anywhere from around 10 to 30 minutes. That first solid block of time has been great for really getting my teeth into a spot of reading, gaming or writing (articles or code) as I nearly always get to sit down, even if it’s on the carriage floor. The underground stretch is “standing room only” but still perfectly fine for reading a paper journal, like MSDN or one of the ACCU publications, as they are easy to hold and manipulate even on a very crowded train.

In the early days when a development capable laptop cost in the region of “thousands of pounds” I spent most of my time reading books about C++, Design Patterns, Windows internals, etc. I also read a variety of journals that have long since gone out of print such as C++ Report, MSJ, CUJ, Application Development Advisor and Dr Dobbs. Pretty much the only one left from this era that’s still in print is MSJ, but now under the name of MSDN Magazine. Luckily the ACCU journals, which I only discovered when CUJ disappeared (circa 2005), are also still in printed form.

Deliberate Practice

There is a saying that goes:

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.

And so I’ve spent plenty of time coding on the train too. The train line I travel on has never even had decent mobile phone reception and so the idea of using the Internet is somewhat laughable. But given that my background has mostly been writing applications and services in C++ this has hardly been a problem to date, and is, in my mind, even highly desirable (See “The Developer’s Sandbox”). Most of what you see on my web site and GitHub page is code that has been written in these little 45 minute stints to-and-from work. Occasionally I’ve done a little bit in the evenings or in the office when the tool has been used to actually help me with my day job, but I’ve never worked anywhere that provides “20% time” - even for permanent staff (and I’d never expect to as a freelancer either).

Habitual Behaviour

It shouldn’t have come as any real surprise that my non-work activities would fall by the wayside the moment that my commute disappeared. After all I’ve taken a few lengthy periods of time off between contracts in the past and despite my best efforts to get motivated and spend it productively I’ve instead found it easy to fritter it away (but in a really nice way, e.g. having time with the family).

It took me a long time to realise just how much structure I need in my life to get “other” things done. Whilst I’d like to believe that I don’t need this kind of formality I’m really just kidding myself. Just as I need my notebook (paper based, of course) by my side to make notes and not forget things, so I need some semblance of order throughout my day to help guide me.

As I write this I’m beginning to wonder how much of what I said in “Code by Day, Design by Night” actually describes my behaviour outside “work time”? I guess my commute means I’ve always had “20%” time, it’s just that it’s had to be on top of my 100% working day. Either way I now realise how valuable to my career that time actually is.

[As if to prove a point I’m only just proof-reading this and hitting the “publish” button now that I’m back commuting again…]

[1] Another choice would have been to go permanent again but I had just started to enjoy the freedom of freelancing and was reluctant to give that up again so quickly.

[2] Hopefully I’ll be filling these very pages with musings from that gig in the coming months.

[3] Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that working from home means a zero-minute commute. Also, given the disruption I caused just by being around when the kids are supposed to be getting ready for school, I’m not convinced my wife always saw it as a bonus :o).

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